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This giant rock is actually a literary Neverland, complete with a king

Redonda, as Michael Hingston explains in his new book, ‘Try Not to Be Strange,’ has inspired a whimsical kingdom of writers and other royal wannabes

The island of Redonda in the Caribbean is the setting of the myth of the “Kingdom of Redonda.” (Courtesy of author's collection)

Since the death in September of King Xavier I — more widely known as Javier Marías, the leading Spanish novelist of his generation — considerable speculation has arisen about who might be his successor to the throne of Redonda. Whether King Xavier had anyone in mind seems as yet unknown. But, doubtless, sometime in the coming months, a new king will be proclaimed, almost certainly followed by the appearance of rival claimants and various pretenders. This is, in fact, a recurrent phenomenon in the modern history of Redonda, that fabled Caribbean island nation.

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Just what, you may wonder, am I talking about? The answer can be found in Michael Hingston’s “Try Not to Be Strange: The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda.” It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, an account of how its Canadian author grew fascinated with a literary jape, a kind of role-playing game or shared-world fantasy involving some of the most eccentric and some of the most famous writers of modern times.

Located in the Lesser Antilles, not far from Montserrat, Redonda is an actual place, geographically speaking. Essentially a really big rock, one mile long and a third of a mile wide, it was named by Christopher Columbus and, for centuries, was mainly viewed as an obstacle to sail around, being largely uninhabitable. In the 19th century, however, the island’s superabundance of guano and phosphate led to the establishment of a small mining operation. One day in 1880, a citizen of Montserrat traveled to the island to celebrate the 15th birthday of his son Matthew Phipps Shiell. As a special surprise, he crowned the boy Felipe I, king of Redonda. No one much noticed or cared.

A few years later, the island’s youthful “monarch” traveled to England — his father’s parting words were “Try not to be strange” — intending to make his fortune as a writer. In 1895, M.P. Shiel (spelled with only one “l”) brought out his first book, “Prince Zaleski,” whose eponymous protagonist resembles an ultra-decadent Sherlock Holmes (and is, after Holmes himself, my favorite Victorian amateur detective). In retelling three exceptionally eerie mysteries solved by Zaleski, Shiel employed a mannered, bejeweled prose that would grow even more over-the-top in the almost surreal, supernatural short stories assembled in “Shapes in the Fire” (1896). Of these stories, especially “Vaila,” later rewritten as “The House of Sounds,” H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “Shiel has done so much better than my best that I am left breathless and inarticulate.”

Shiel’s literary career would peak in 1901 with his baroque science fiction masterpiece, “The Purple Cloud,” in which a character named Adam Jeffson finds himself the last man alive on Earth. That novel cemented my own fascination with this unusual writer, and I began to collect Shiel’s books and learn more about the man himself.

As Hingston notes, Shiel’s personal life wasn’t just bohemian and maritally irresponsible: He served time in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a young stepdaughter, a charge he denied. In his later years, though, he made one truly devoted disciple, an up-and-coming man of letters named Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, who wrote poetry and edited anthologies as John Gawsworth. Just before Shiel died in 1947, he named Gawsworth as his successor to the joke throne of Redonda.

Perhaps surprisingly, King Juan I took up his royal duties with resolute, if tongue-in-cheek seriousness. He quickly came to see Redonda, to quote Hingston, as “an exotic symbol. . . of wonder and wish-fulfillment” and “an intricate fantasy realm that was insulated from the multiple harshnesses of reality.” Before long, the island’s new sovereign began to issue proclamations, investing his favorite bookmen and women with titles and high offices in the Redondan court. Hingston’s appendix reproduces some of these documents: Arthur Machen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lawrence Durrell, Alfred Knopf and Dylan Thomas are among those listed under the rubric “Duchies of the Realm.”

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In short order, there was also a Redondan national anthem and the first of the island’s several different flags. Sometimes King Juan — who kept King Felipe’s cremated remains in a tea caddie — would sprinkle a few royal ashes into a special guest’s food. A short film, made near the end of Gawsworth’s life, features a scene in which Durrell meets his old friend with the salutation, “Hail, O king!”

By that time, however, Gawsworth had descended into poverty, homelessness and severe alcoholism. The once proud monarch began to award Redondan titles to anyone who would lend him money or buy him a drink. He also named different people as his chosen heir to the throne. Consequently, after Gawsworth’s death in 1970, nearly a dozen people — including his bartender, as well as a self-proclaimed King Guillermo I who lived in Skagway, Alaska — declared themselves to be the new and rightful ruler of the fantasy realm. Still, a writer and vegetarian activist named Jon Wynne-Tyson emerged as the most widely recognized claimant, partly because he had actually traveled to Redonda to be crowned.

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In his later years, King Juan II grew tired of the burdens of power and resolved to abdicate after reading Javier Marías’s novel, “All Souls,” in which the autobiographical protagonist collects Gawsworth’s poetry. After some negotiation, in 1997, Marías accepted the crown as King Xavier, promising to keep alive the work of Shiel and Gawsworth as well as maintain Redonda’s literary culture. The novelist A.S. Byatt, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and cultural scholar Marina Warner soon appeared on the kingdom’s honors list. For a long time, I quietly — but alas vainly — hoped that my enthusiastic review of one of Marías’s books would lead to seeing my own name among the latest Knights Grand Commander in the Order of the Star of Redonda. Even now, I stand ready to pledge my fealty to King Xavier’s successor, whoever it may turn out to be.

In “Try Not to Be Strange,” Hingston relates all this whimsy, with abundant anecdotes, in the manner of A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 classic, “The Quest for Corvo,” which transformed writing a biography into an intensely personal adventure. Thus, Hingston recounts how he learned of Redonda from Marías’s novels, slowly began to collect books relating to the kingdom, then grew increasingly obsessed until one exciting day he bid “more money that I’d ever spent on anything that I couldn’t drive or live inside” to acquire, at auction, a trove of Gawsworth’s papers. Afterward, he started to communicate with living Redondan notables and to research the micro-nation’s various rival monarchs, including a raffish ship’s captain known as King Bob the Bald.

Hingston’s quest reaches its inevitable climax when he travels to the actual Redonda on a mini-expedition that devolves into frivolity, confusion, exhaustion and near-disaster. How could it be otherwise? What really matters isn’t the island itself, but the idea of this literary Neverland, this magic kingdom of the imagination.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World and the author of the memoir “An Open Book,” the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle” and five collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book,” “Classics for Pleasure” and “Browsings.”

Try Not to Be Strange

The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda

By Michael Hingston

Biblioasis. 302 pp. Paperback, $18.95

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